Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Thinking about the Past

From birth to three-years-old, I lived in a beautiful brownstone in Brooklyn; my grandmother lived in the one right next door, the two homes connected by a little front courtyard.  My family decided after a few years to move to the suburbs, something my non-driving grandmother wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about, but she came along, living in a grandmother apartment connected to our house, which was conveniently walking distance to a church.  That last detail made her very happy.

Besides living close to a church, there was another thing my grandmother desired: a weekly trip back to Brooklyn.  There were two reasons for this:  1) to see her son and his family and 2) to get the rye bread and butter that she liked.  The rye was good old caraway studded bread made in a Kosher bakery.  The butter, however, was a different story.  It couldn’t have “too much red” in it and had to be purchased at a particular store on Flatbush Avenue.  To this day, I have no idea what that meant but every week we made the trip in my mother’s Rambler station wagon, saw my uncle, aunt, and cousins, and bought the two things that my Irish grandmother loved to eat. 

Back in those days, the early ‘70s, the West Side Highway was elevated for most of its length along the western edge of New York City.  On the left, as we headed south, sat a truck positioned high on the side of a building.  (Here’s a link to an old photo:  My grandmother told us that the model of the driver inside the truck was her late husband, my mother’s father, Gus.  (OK, let that one sink in a minute.  She had a strange sense of humor.)  As we ventured further down the highway, there were a number of ladies of the night working in the daylight hours strutting on either side of the highway, and a variety of bars that catered to a certain clientele who needed easy on/easy off the highway before and after their assignations.  It was a different time on the west side of New York, but one that is still a vivid memory.

My most treasured recollections of that time, however, are those related to watching the World Trade Center—or the “Twin Towers,” as we called them back then—being built.  Every week would bring a different vantage point of the towers’ architectural progress depending on which lane of the highway we were in, which stoplight we waited at to progress toward the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.  I remember craning my neck at a more awkward angle each week as another floor went up.  I’m not sure I saw it all the way to its completion but I remember it getting pretty close.

My grandmother passed away in 1981 and my uncle—her son—moved to Massachusetts.  We still visited some remaining family members in Brooklyn over the years but tried different routes to get there. (People in New York are crazy about traffic and avoiding it.  Here’s the secret:  you can’t.)  The Belt Parkway.  The BQE.  The Brooklyn Bridge.  But none were as scenic and historic as going down the West Side Highway—now, not elevated and now not littered with leather bars and a variety of unsavory characters.  I hadn’t realized how long it had been since we tried the old route until we had child #2 in the car, someone who, when we stopped at a light, peered out the window and said “Look, Mom!  The Freedom Tower!”  He pressed his face against the glass as I had done forty years prior and craned his neck to see all the way to the last constructed floor.  He marveled at the lights on it.  He was fascinating by how close it seemed to be to the highway.  He asked where the truck was that was suspended on the side of a building.  He got a little nervous in the Battery Tunnel but found that pretty compelling as a structure as well.

I have told both my children more than twenty times or so how much I loved those old trips to Brooklyn and how I loved watching the Twin Towers go up but the kind of imagery I hope I am able to convey in the written word just didn’t do it when I described it verbally.  They didn’t understand the significance of the rye bread and butter purchasing trips; they live in a world where you can get anything you like, any time, anywhere. They didn’t understand how seeing two iconic buildings—now gone—go up week after week was exciting. But they are older now and building their own memories of our family and thinking of the things that make us all unique, like how their maternal grandmother shares her own mother’s funny sense of humor and loves horror shows (all the better to watch “The Walking Dead” with her grandson); or how they will be able to tell their children, years from now, that they saw the Freedom Tower being erected.  Or that they used to visit Brooklyn to see their mother’s family, once soon after the Battery Tunnel was flooded after Hurricane Sandy. Or how their mother always spoke of a truck that was mounted to the side of a building on the West Side Highway. (They aren’t sure still if they believe me on that one, just as I wasn’t entirely sure that the model of the man sitting in the front seat wasn’t my grandfather.)

I was thinking about family and memories after reading Evelyn’s post on Monday about selling her family home and that’s what got me to write this seemingly thesis-less post about the things I remember and what I hope my children will remember.  Evelyn is right—she’ll miss her home but she still has her memories.  And so will her kids, and her wonderful grandchildren.  These little memories—the ones that hold close to us, who knows why—are the ones that make every family unique and special.

What special memories do you have?

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Okay, I loved this.

    One of my special memories is going for a walk around Inwood with my grandfather. We'd head to the park there along the river and sit on a bench to feed the pigeons. He'd point to the rock across the water (the one with the giant "C") and tell me, in his Irish brogue and with a sparkle in his eye, that HE had painted that for "Casey." I believed that for far more years that I probably should have, but why not?

  2. Really out of the park post today, Mags.

    I remember going to Miller Beach, part of Indiana's shore of Lake Michigan, by car or bus. It felt like it took forever to get there, though it probably took a half an hour and there was a wonderful ice-cream shop on the way, what would today be called an "indie" place and then was "mom-and-pop" (more places were), called Jack Spratt. I always got peach ice-cream in part because it was something you couldn't get easily at home.

    As we got within a few blocks of finally being able to run across the sand in our flip-flops and play not just in the water and the sand but on the big cast-metal turtle that was in the adjacent playground, you would come up a rising turn and there it was: the lake. Not our dull residential landscape, not the Chicago or even downtown Gary landscape, but THE LAKE. One of the five greats, too. Huge. Wide. All blue, white, tan in simple lines with maybe some frothy shapes, dotted with people in colorful swim suits. Always a thrill. You were THERE

    The sand was often so hot you couldn't walk barefoot on it. The concession stand seemed stuffed with more snacks and soda than anyone could consume. You could hear Beach Boys and Jackson 5 tunes over the loud speaker and if people had their own radios with them they tuned into the same station and it created a sort of crowd-sourced symphony. And the smell of Coppertone was trance-inducing. We'd play in cool water and then sun ourselves on the big, worn, and warm surface of that turtle. He was giant then to me and I wished I could have one in my yard (frankly, I still like that idea). But he was more likely only a little over three feet in diameter.

    We usually went with my teenage sisters and their crowd, and though I know mom and dad liked the beach I now get the strong sense that they were happy to get us all out of the house for a good, long while on hot summer days!

  3. Laura, your grandfather sounds a lot like my grandmother. I think the Irish have a thing for "exaggeration"???

    Vicky, I am smiling reading about your childhood memories. Thank you for sharing them.


  4. Wonderful evocative post, Maggie! Childhood memories are the best. Your grandmother sounds like such a character.

  5. Linda, some day, I'm going to write a book about my grandmother. She had such an influence on me as a person and I swear that she watched out for me the entire time I was undergoing treatment, even from "afar." Thanks for your kind words. Maggie

  6. All these posts are so moving and evocative of my own childhood. I grew up in New York, and Often we drove on the West Side Highway to get to see other delicious places. My Grandfather lived in Manhattan, and we spent lots of days in Central Park, a place so beautifully described in Simon and Garfunkel's song Old Friends. Sometimes I think there is a chorus of spirits looking down at me, saying, "remember this and this, and us." And oh, we traveled to a special place on 72nd Street for their napoleons.

  7. Lil, it sounds like you have similar NY memories to mine. I forgot to mention that there was a place in Brooklyn that is now closed--Ebenger's--and every summer, they would have a creme-filled cupcake that to this day makes my mouth water when I think about it. I figure I ate my last one when I was four or five but still remember the taste. That must have been some intoxicating cupcake. Sounds similar to your napoleons in the pantheon of remembered baked goods. Maggie


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